New York, May 21, 2003—Atahar Siddik Khasru, a reporter for the national Bengali-language daily Ittefaq who had been missing for three weeks, was found early this morning by a village roadside, his hands and feet bound by heavy chains secured with a padlock. A villager spotted Khasru’s body at around 5:30 a.m. and alerted local authorities.
Police from Sitakunda, the town where Khasru lives, brought the journalist to the local police station, where a crowd had gathered upon hearing the news. He was later turned over to police in the nearby city of Chittagong, where Khasru’s brother had registered a kidnapping case after the journalist disappeared on Wednesday, April 30. Khasru spoke to local journalists and also made a statement in front of the Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Chittagong before being admitted to the National Hospital for treatment of his injuries.
Journalists in Chittagong told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that Khasru had clearly been tortured by his captors. They said his hands appeared badly injured, as if they had been struck repeatedly by a knife or sharp object, and that his body was covered with small cuts. Khasru also told reporters that he was kept blindfolded and was beaten with sticks or rods.
In his statements to police and to the local judge, Khasru identified eight people as accomplices to his kidnapping, including a leader of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He says that on the night of April 30, he was riding in an autorickshaw on his way to a relative’s home when a taxi forced his vehicle to a stop. Three men, two of them carrying guns, grabbed the journalist and pushed him into the taxi, where at least two others were waiting. The gang blindfolded Khasru and drove him to an unknown location. The reporter says he was moved several times but does not know where exactly he was held. He was eventually dumped just 5 miles (8 kilometers) away from the Sitakunda police station, according to one journalist.
Khasru says he was able to identify many of his captors both by their voices and because they often addressed each other by name. He adds that in conversations with each other and over the phone, they made repeated references to local political leader Nurul Islam as being their “boss.”
Khasru says that Islam, general secretary of the BNP’s Sitakunda chapter, had threatened him repeatedly on the day of his kidnapping—both because of his reporting and his outspoken support for journalist Mahmudul Haq, who had reported on corruption committed by politicians and police in Sitakunda. Islam had accused Haq of extortion, and the journalist was arrested on Tuesday, May 6. Haq, who is editor and publisher of the Sitakunda magazine Upanagar, is still imprisoned in Chittagong Jail.
CPJ has not received any response to the letter sent on Wednesday, May 7, to Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia and other authorities urging a prompt and impartial inquiry into Khasru’s disappearance and Haq’s arrest. At that time, CPJ noted that because local officials have been accused of involvement in these incidents, it is essential that a team of investigators from outside Chittagong District conduct the probe.
“The kidnapping and torture of Atahar Siddik Khasru is a terrible crime,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “And, unfortunately, such vicious attacks against journalists in Bangladesh have become much more common in recent years.
“The government must ensure that those who use force to silence the press will be prosecuted, regardless of their political affiliations.”
Cooper also expressed concern for the fate of Mahmudul Haq, who has been imprisoned for two weeks without being formally charged. “Because Mr. Haq may be the victim of a politically motivated and unjust prosecution, he should be released immediately pending an independent inquiry into apparent efforts to intimidate the press in Sitakunda,” said Cooper.